What I have written, here, is far too much about some of the video games I played and thought about the most this year. This isn’t necessarily a top ten, more of a “my video game year in review” sort of thing, because I wanted to write some things about some games that aren’t necessarily top ten material. And because, honestly, I didn’t feel like arbitrarily ranking a list of things I wanted to talk about.
If you’ve seen me post about this game, it’s almost certainly just me gushing about it. I played this game at launch and thought it incredible during my entire first play session. Never had I played a shooter that felt so fast and intense and smooth, I don’t think I’ve ever played anything where the combat just flowed so amazingly well and so perfectly. 90% of this game is balanced on a knife edge between making things incredibly difficult and cheating in the background such that the player always feels like they’re the one just barely making it through. Surely the forums will be awash with praise and awe just like last time, right?
The only reason Doom Eternal isn’t the most polarizing game of this year is because the most hyped game of the decade came out this year and it wasn’t quite what was hyped. Nobody expected its corny story to be any good, but it was somehow worse than expected. 2016’s story was either fun nonsense or generic sci-fi and, most importantly, it didn’t pretend like you cared. Nobody expected this much platforming either, something that I actually enjoyed a lot but most seem to think it’s an unwanted interruption at best and awful at worst.
But, most notably, nobody expected the game to lean into difficulty quite this much. I mean, I knew they were bumping up the higher-end difficulties, but goddamn they really demand a lot of any given player. Even Hurt Me Plenty has its moments. You are never not about to die – even at full health, you could be dead in five seconds if you make a wrong move. You must keep moving, you must be smart about how and where you move, you must be cognizant of where enemies are outside your field of view, you must prioritize targets, and you must juggle glory kills, chainsaws, and flamethrowers to keep your health, ammo, and armor up, because you’re never not going to be low on all three. If you loved Doom 2016 because you could get through the entire game on Ultra Violence using only the Super Shotgun, Rocket Launcher, and occasional BFG shell while running the same figure 8 around the battlefield… this game is either going to make you get better at playing fast-paced shooters or you’re really not going to like it. Meanwhile, if you thought Doom 2016 was too easy and its fights too short, then this is the game for you!
I must stop the praise there because I do think this game has some serious issues. Primarily, the Marauder. He’s all over the game’s later marketing and they filled the DLC full of Marauders and he’s just the worst. See, when you’re designing a game, you’ve gotta find a gameplay loop that’s fun, and then you’ve gotta build on that and add to it and change it up. What you shouldn’t do is shoot that gameplay loop in the foot. “Changing things up” doesn’t mean “introduce an enemy that breaks everything good about the combat”. Even when you know this guy’s pattern, even when you’ve got Ballista-Super Shotty-Ballista-Super Shotty combos downpat, he’s still just a fucking black spot on this game. And yet nobody seems to have told id, because he’s all over the DLC. Someone high up at id really has a hard-on for what Marauders bring to the table. I’m sorry to tell him that the Marauder is bad design.
(As an aside, if you don’t want to see those motherfucking shitbag ghost hounds, don’t shoot his shield. Only shoot after you see his green eyes. God, I hate this enemy).
“Bad design” also includes the purple slow down goop that appears in a few levels. This stuff appears and it’s like the developers were asking “well, what if Doomguy was in a wheelchair and couldn’t dodge?” I swear, there’s someone up there who thinks that “changing things up” means “destroying your core gameplay loop” and whoever this person is had way more control of the DLC than they should have. Fortunately, neither of these issues pop up all that often in the main campaign - the much-maligned Marauder appears only a handful of times and the purple goop is easy to work around.
However, for these reasons, I believe that id software has run out of what they can do with this design. I mean, I’d love for them to surprise me, but frankly I’d love for them to do something else even more. They’ve proven that they can make a game that’s beautiful and runs amazingly well, they’ve proven that they can make fast-paced first person combat awesome in ways that no one else has, but now I want them to try something entirely different. Give me a new big-budget shooter IP that stands out from the crowd and isn’t shackled by a nonsense story. Perhaps take the difficulty back a notch and instead explore new mechanics and concepts, rather than ones honed to a razor’s edge.
(Side note: Doom 2016 and Doom Eternal are not the only old school style shooters around these days. Dusk is flat-out amazing, Amid Evil is unique and has a lot of fans, and early access Prodeus is fantastic. If you didn’t like Eternal but still want some of that fast-paced shooter action, check one of these out!)
Subnautica/ Subnautica: Below Zero
Subnautica is one of my favorite games of all time, and my favorite since Metroid Prime. That’s incredible praise coming from me. This is one of those games that made me feel the same way about video games as I did when I was eleven, playing Metroid Prime for the first time in complete awe. You know how as an adult you might sometimes think you’ll never read a book or watch a movie or play a game that just catches your wonder and awe the same way you felt as a kid? You know how Dan Rykert starts the Breath of the Wild Quick Look, jumping up and down on screen, overjoyed that he got to play that game and loved every minute of it?
Well, that’s me and Subnautica. I still don’t know exactly what it is about this game that draws me in so much. It’s weird and wild and wonderful, full of beautiful underwater biomes and terrifying creatures and so much to see and do. It’s loaded with upgrades and new items and gizmos, all of which are designed to help your explore further out and deeper. You can spend hours fiddling about with your base, build up your Cyclops so that you don’t even really need a base, or go get in trouble with fish that have mandibles larger than you. I have spent 200 hours in this game this year, playing through it over and over, starting new games, building bases in different places, seeing how fast I could get a Cyclops, and trying and failing to overcome my fear of Reaper Leviathans. Play this game!
...unless you’ve got a low tolerance for technical issues and weird pacing.
Subnautica doesn’t perform well. There are things you can to make it better, but no matter what you try it’s going to have performance issues. Framerate drops are common, especially late in the game, but what I’m more bothered by is the pop-in. There’s a red grassy fields biome where the grass pops in all the time. It would be a gorgeous biome were it not for the awful pop-in. This issue is present throughout large areas of the game, too – low res textures get replaced by their proper counterparts five feet in front of you and vegetation that should be there comes in way later than it should. Unknown Worlds have made major strides in improving this game with a few updates over this year and it looks like they’re planning on doing at least a few more, but I doubt this game will ever run perfectly. Maybe the optimizations they’re making for that Switch port will fix the PC version properly, but I wouldn’t hold my breath
In the meantime, standalone expansion Below Zero performs much better – there’s far less pop-in, far better texture quality, and when there is pop-in it’s actually a fade-in effect in the distance, not immediate springing into existence right in front of your face. It’s still in Early Access, though, so I don’t have much more to say about it, other than that I think BZ has the potential to be the better game of the two but it just can’t replace that first-time experience I had with the original. I cannot recommend either of these games enough!
Pillars of Eternity 1 and 2
So this post might be a little complicated.
I played Pillars of Eternity when we went into lockdown and I had to work from home. I would wake up, eat breakfast, drink coffee, log in, and sit here for the next nine hours (remember, hour for lunch!) and then when it came time to log off, I’d just disconnect from my remote session and then be back at my desktop... at which point I’d fire up Pillars and spend the rest of the night playing that (barring time for preparing food and doing chores). This eventually took its toll on me, because human beings aren’t meant to stay largely in one room for months, but I didn’t really realize it and sort of mentally took it out on the game. Why did I keep playing? I don’t know, exactly! But I’d play it, hate the difficulty curve, hate the controls, hate anything I could think of, which is totally unfair because none of this game’s problems are that bad and some of those aren’t problems at all.
But I kept coming back for more until 90 hours had passed and I had finished the whole thing. Well, I got stuck on a boss in the DLC and didn’t finish that and there are several endgame sidequests that I didn’t finish. And by the end I bumped it down to easy because I just wanted to be done with it. Still, I don’t spend 90 hours in games that don’t appeal to me in some way, and I fully intend to replay this game now that I’m not spending literally all of my time at my desk. I remember always thinking the art was gorgeous, the dungeons were fun, the characters were interesting, the writing was great, and the world was amazing, and I’d like to play it again without feeling like I’m chained to my desk 24/7.
There are a few legitimate complaints I have, however, and I want to talk about them here.
Durance and the Grieving Mother have some of the most irritating dialog in the game. I don’t know if I want to rag on Durance’s writing too much because he’s supposed to sound like a half-mad priest that talks in circles. I found him to be pretty overwritten, some of his dialog needs a sharp editor with a sharper pair of scissors. Grieving Mother needs to go back to the drawing board, however. She also talks in half-mad circles, but she makes Durance’s writing look brisk in comparison. It’s just the worst long-winded nothing I think I might have ever come across in a video game. Her dialog is so long and so overwrought that by the end of whatever the fuck she was saying, I had completely missed the one line that meant anything. I wound up looking her up on a wiki just to see what her deal was. It’s kind of nothing. She’s got a tragic backstory presented in a unique way, which is great except again, could really use an editor. I was much more interested in Eder and Pallegina, characters who are more workman-like in their writing and more grounded in their personal stories, but who wind up being much more relatable and interesting.
I have no other problems with any of the game’s writing. I’m sure there’s some plot holes here and there and the game never really defines a Watcher’s abilities (it actually does - the Watcher’s primary ability is “fulfill whatever the plot needs”) but there’s a lot of great stuff here about souls, memories, gods, and how all of these intertwine and I think it’s all well-worth your time and money.
The other thing I want to talk about is how attributes are distributed among named characters, because ugh. So Obsidian approached this game with the mindset that they didn’t want anybody to min-max anything. They wanted every stat to be important to every class. They wanted people to balance out their stats to make, you know, a character, and not just the end result of numbers plugged into an Excel sheet. Unfortunately, what they succeeded in doing is making a set of attributes that are boring at best and frustrating at worst. Might may be the most important stat of the lot for any character. Might affects how effective you are with your skills. It affects how hard Eder swings his swords - fair enough, that’s what you’d expect such a skill to do - but it also affects how much Aloth’s fireballs hurt someone, how much Pallegina heals someone, or how much Durance’s buffs affect someone. Constitution is health, Dexterity is speed, Perception is accuracy, intellect is area of effect, and resolve is both the most-used speech check and the thing that soft-counters mental status effects (confused, dominated, that kind of thing). OK, with me so far? Doesn’t sound so bad, right?
Pallegina is a Paladin. She needs to be pretty good at hitting things and pretty good at healing things and pretty good at buffing things - perhaps not the best at all three but good enough to be useful.
Pallegina has 12 Might. The one stat that affects all of the things she needs to be really good at is garbage. This wouldn’t be such a huge problem if you could stack effects from armor, but you can’t, which means that in the vanilla game the highest you can get her to is 14 Might and with the DLC that’s 15 Might. From 15, you can buff her to hit things and heal people enough, but at that point why wouldn’t you just take Durance to heal people and, I dunno, Eder to hit people? I like the character, but using her in combat was an exercise in frustration.
That goes for pretty much everyone else, too, but Pallegina is just the worst case. Everyone has a weakness or two, but because all stats are important, you need to shuffle equipment such that you’re making up for weaknesses instead of shuffling equipment such that everyone’s strengths are sharpened. I never got that moment where you do what feels like a gazillion damage against something, or that moment where you can heal a ton, or that moment where I felt like I had done a good job of speccing someone. I might just be bad at this game, or bad at CRPGs in general, but no matter what I researched or what I tried in game, I never could figure out why I didn’t feel like my characters were powerful enough. I was buffing, improving armor, changing things around, and I was able to get through fights but I always felt like I was doing something wrong and could never figure out what.
This is also the first CRPG I ever actually finished so maybe it was just me. I couldn’t tell you, though, and I couldn’t tell you where to go find that information. I just wish the game was better at explaining stuff to you. And a Dark Souls-like character sheet would be nice, where all of the numbers are available and clearly labeled in one big sheet, instead of a whole bunch of paragraphs that take a lot of words to explain what should be one or two sentences.
Anyway, I also played Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire!
I didn’t finish Deadfire. I spent fifty hours sailing around the ocean, exploring whatever towns I could find, talking to everyone, reading through everything, and generally wandering around the world. I played Deadfire after I started going back to work, so that bit where I was spending too long at a desk didn’t matter here. What did matter is that I loved what I played of Deadfire. Deadfire is gorgeous, for one. I mean, Pillars 1 looks great too but on some level it’s still the same forests and ruins you ran around in CRPGs of yesteryear, just with more particle effects and a fascination with the color purple. Here, though, things pop much better than they did in PoE1. I’m no artist, I can’t pinpoint exactly what this game’s doing to make things look so great all the time, but I can tell you that I was never not happy with what I was looking at. Out of all the isometric CRPGs we’ve had this past decade, I think POE 2 might be my favorite one to just soak in.
I played the game’s turn-based combat mode, because I was just tired of all the real-time with pause stuff of the first game. I think the game’s turn-based mode is pretty fun, but it also makes the game agonizingly long and I think that’s part of the reason I didn’t finish this one. It also makes casters completely overpowered, even though they have to wait a turn or two after casting for their spell to actually go off. Even still, I got a better grasp of combat this time around and I had a lot more fun with it.
I also really like the writing here. Is some of it overwrought? Yeah, maybe a little so, but never to the point of annoyance for me. It’s flowery enough to keep my interest and crystal-clear enough that I was never unsure of what was going on, and the goings-on were consistently more than enough to keep my interest. Pillars of Eternity 2 does have one major issue here, though - its main quest is one of those that strongly implies urgency to stop a world-ending calamity, but in reality you can and should take all the time you want. In fact, the game is at its best when you forget that there’s a main quest and just go role-playing as a noble pirate-assassin of the high seas. Yes, I am aware that’s an oxy-moron. No, I don’t care.
It’s still worth reiterating that I didn’t finish Pillars 2. Fifty hours is a long time for one game and by that point I had been playing a lot of isometric RPGs, so I burned out on the whole genre for a little while. Don’t do that.
...as an aside, so much of Pillars 2’s lore and worldbuilding relies on you having played and finished Pillars 1. I do strongly recommend the package to anyone with any interest in this stuff. If you’re playing on console, be warned that those versions are somewhat buggier than the PC version and load times range from “long” to “have another hobby on hand for transition areas” - you need an SSD for this game on console, and rotate between three or four saves instead of making a new one every time.
Baldur’s Gate and other Infinity Engine stuff
I didn’t actually finish Baldur’s Gate 1 either, but I did play a bunch of it.
Baldur’s Gate 1 is very definitely a first of its kind sort of thing. You’re not missing out on all that much if you totally skip it. In fact, what you are missing out on is a whole lot of lawnmowering away fog of war in what looks like the same rolling plains/forest that you lawnmowered out for the last area. You’re also missing out on the first few hours of basically having nothing to do in combat except select a character, select an enemy, and hope that your rolls are better than his rolls. You’re also missing out on THE game that made modern RPGs what they are. Knights of the Old Republic doesn’t exist without this game. Mass Effect doesn’t exist without this game. I’d argue that The Witcher 3 doesn’t exist without this game. The CRPG renaissance we’ve had over the past decade doesn’t exist without this game. Does that make it one of the greats? I don’t know. Does that make it worth playing? If only for academic interest, yes.
Baldur’s Gate is, at the end of the day, a game about wandering the wilds, picking up quests, doing those quests, and making your characters more powerful. In my experience, it is never more or less than that. It’s entertaining most of the time, mind-numbingly boring sometimes, and sometimes it’s just frustrating when you lose combat to a bad roll or you tried to write five spells to your spellbook and you failed the last one and then realized that you FORGOT TO SAVE BEFORE DOING ANY OF THIS!
But I still recommend trying BG1 first, especially if you’ve never played a CRPG. The original “Core Rules” difficulty on the Enhanced Editions is too much for a newbie, but the Normal difficulty is just right and has some more forgiving mechanics pushed in there for good measure. It’s simpler than Pillars of Eternity and doesn’t start getting complex until a decent ways in, which means you have more than enough time to actually figure things out and get your bearings straight before you start analyzing strategies and mechanics and such. There really aren’t any other choices for “baby’s first isometric CRPG” out there.
The real Infinity Engine classics are Baldur’s Gate 2, Icewind Dale, and Planescape Torment. I haven’t touch Planescape and thus won’t comment on it, other than to say that from my understanding it’s actually a very different game from its siblings.
Baldur’s Gate 2 is a game I played five or so hours of before deciding that I really do want to finish 1 and Siege of Dragonspear first. I just want to see this character’s entire journey through, from beginning to end. That said, just from the first few hours I can tell you that BG2 is obviously a more thoroughly-written, meatier game. You start at level 8 or so, with more than enough abilities to play around with right off the bat. Characters have more depth in the first dungeon than they do for the entirety of BG1, and you’re launched into the game with an engaging main villain to chase, a few objectives that are simple to understand but difficult to execute, and a huge city to explore. Do I know any more about the game than that? Not really. I know that the second chapter of the game is where the vast majority of content lies, so the pacing of this game is also off because you spend most of it sidequesting while Imoen lies chained up... somewhere.
Icewind Dale is the other Infinity Engine game I played a decent chunk of this year. I really like it! I... didn’t finish it, but hey, it’s kind of awesome! I didn’t finish it because I got into some bad habits. This game offers you a lot of items that need to be identified and I would just identify all of them as soon as I got them - which meant saving, writing identify spells to my spellbook, putting every item on my mage, resting and reloading until I rested without being interrupted by monsters, identifying everything, re-writing all of my other spells, saving, resting and reloading until I rested without being interrupted by monsters, done. That song and dance got very tiring! If I have any hint for prospective players of this game, it’s that you should buy the bag of holding ASAP and then put all of your identify items in there and just have an “identify session” whenever you get back to town or every so often.
Anyway, with that said, Icewind Dale is a dungeon crawler through-and-through. Do you like running through underground tunnels, ancient temples, evil snake-people lairs, and so on and so forth? How do you like cold, frigid, uncaring environments? What about when all of that is backed by a soundtrack by Jeremy Soule, of The Elder Scrolls fame? I love the atmosphere of this game. There’s not much in the way of story, it’s just you, the party (that you have to make yourself, so prepare to spend two hours rolling six characters!), and a lot of monster-slaying and treasure-finding to do. That’s it. If you find yourself wanting more of Baldur’s Gates’s CRPG combat, this is the game for you.
And I have little more to say about it, actually. It’s great, but it’s not the genre-defining games that BG1 and 2 were. It’s the combat of those games extracted and placed into a game that is almost entirely about killing things and it is very, very good at being that thing.
Let’s talk about something other than RPGs, shall we?
Halo: The Master Chief Collection
There’s not much I can say about these games that hasn’t already been said, so I should probably be brief here. I love all of these games, to some degree, even 4. I’ve played this collection for 202 hours this year according to Steam - that’s mostly multiplayer, but I finished several of the campaigns multiple times, by my lonesome and with friends. I played through Halo 2 on Legendary for the first time, which was a blast that I maybe don’t recommend if you’re not into bullshit insta-kill headshots from enemies you never could have spotted in time. I talked a lot about how Halo 2 is a master-class in worldbuilding, how it does such a great job of showing and not telling that a lot of RPGs could learn from, and speculated on the idea that the only reason the “good guys” won the Human-Covenant war is because Truth stabbed the Elites in the back because too many of them had been asking too many questions and the honor-bound warrior race didn’t take too kindly to that. I played through Halo 3 a bunch and remembered why it’s such an awesome game sprinkled with so many amazing moments - here’s TWO Scarabs for you to fight, surrounded by AI in helicopters and jeeps and tanks! But don’t pay too close attention to the friendly AI, they’re kinda dumb.
Anyway, look, I could spend forever gushing about these games, but everyone reading this already knows if they enjoy these games or not. This collection houses some of my favorite games to play and replay over and over again and I couldn’t be happier that they’re on PC now. Is the port perfect? Well, no, frankly, but I don’t think its minor issues should keep anyone interested from getting it.
I imagine the people who like Amid Evil will look at my comments and feel the same way I do when I look at negativity surrounding Doom Eternal. Before we get started, Amid Evil is interesting enough and enough people really like this game that I do think it’s worth trying. I hesitate to call it a bad game, I just personally found myself disliking it.
In case you haven’t kept up with the classic shooter renaissance that’s been happening over the past few years (thanks Doom 2016 for kickstarting that!), Amid Evil is a more fantasy-oriented version of these games. Your weapons consist of a sword that throws out a blade, anime-style, every time you swing it, a staff that fires weak bullets that home in on things, a morning star that throws its spikes forward when you swing it, another staff that pulls planets from an alternate dimension and fires them like a rocket launcher (I want to reiterate that you are SHOOTING PLANETS AT THINGS), and several other things that I didn’t find quite as interesting.
This is all well and good, but most of the enemies in this game are some variation on “animated armor” There are differences and exceptions, but most of the AI behavior involves rushing at you Serious Sam style, and you also spend most of the game backpedaling Serious Sam style. Not always, but I felt like far too much of the game was this. Somehow, a game where every area has a different set of enemies feels like all the enemies are the same, and I don’t like Serious Sam.
I can, right off the top of my head, think of several exceptions to what I just said, but those exceptions don’t change the thoughts that I constantly had throughout the game - that despite all of the stuff in this game that’s awesome on paper, I found myself bored, even when things were difficult. I didn’t find the weapons satisfying (except the motherfucking planet launcher) or the enemies all that rewarding to fight. The latter half of the game got irritating, what with all of the thin ledges on which you are expected to perform 90’s-esque FPS combat without any hitscan weapons. Falling into the abyss because you had nowhere to dodge several incoming attacks isn’t all that fun. The final area devolves into Escher-esque twisting levels and portal puzzles that just suck, complete with hordes of enemies that I just didn’t like fighting. So I spent most of my time with this game bored or irritated, thinking of all the Dusk or Doom I could be playing.
I did keep playing, though, and almost finished the game before I decided I didn’t care to figure out how to proceed. I kept playing because this game is absolutely gorgeous to look at. Every area is this weird, ethereal plane of complete nonsense, but it’s drawn and laid out in a way that my eyes feasted upon for hours. I couldn’t stop looking at this game’s environments and its weird sprite weapon models. I kept playing because I wanted to see what kind of crazy-ass room I would be in next. They added ray-tracing to this game so whenever I do get a hold of another graphics card, I’ll probably replay this whole thing just to see what it looks like ray-traced.
Pathfinder: Kingmaker and Wasteland 3
Yes, we’re back to the RPGs, but I promise this will be short.
Pathfinder: Kingmaker is the adaptation of the Pathfinder tabletop RPG. And when I say “adaptation”, what I mean is that they wanted to make this game as close to the tabletop experience as possible. For better or worse, every design decision that went into this game seems to have been made with the thought “is this the closest we can get to the tabletop game” and not “does this make for a good video game”. I’m unsure if I can call this a “good” or “bad” video game, honestly - I’ve played several hours and restarted the game once but I don’t think I’ve played enough to fully form an opinion. But that’s not an invalid way to design a game - they weren’t going for mass appeal, they had an idea and they saw it through, and ultimately what I played of the game did play well. It’s just that some parts of it are weird in ways I would have to get used to, and some parts of it are loaded with traits and abilities that it would take me multiple playthroughs to parse.
Also, fun fact - this game has controller support on PC now and a turn based mode. More fun than both of those facts is that you can actually switch between turn based and real time with pause combat with the push of a button - no fuss, no muss, just click the icon on screen or click the right analog stick and now you’re in the other combat mode, at any time, even mid-combat!
Wasteland 3 is the precise opposite of Pathfinder: Kingmaker. Sure, you could still trace some kind of tabletop roots in this game, but this is a video game-ass video game and there’s nary a hide nor hair of design decisions made for the sake of adhering to some archaic ideas of what a CRPG should be or for the sake of sticking to some twenty year old tabletop game for people who think DnD isn’t complex enough. Instead, Wasteland 3 feels a lot more like a CRPG made for people who just want a good old relaxed turn-based adventure. Inventory is bottomless and shared among characters, speech checks are made against the party member with the best stat and not against the person in conversation, currency goes into a shared pool and isn’t held by one person, and combat is very X-Com like. You honestly can’t get more approachable than this game without shaving off some complexity.
Writing and story are great as well! I mean, not perfect, but whatever, I was interested in seeing what was happening and the game had a lot of momentum going for it.
However, the first time I played this game co-op with my brother and the Game Pass version suddenly wouldn’t load so we couldn’t keep that playthrough going. Second time I started it myself and got some ways through, but my brother got it and we started playing co-op again - which failed when we fired up Satisfactory and, uh, I’ll get to that game. If I had finished this game, I suspect it would be towards the top of this discussion, but alas, it is not. Sometimes shit happens.
Anyway, my point was that I think both of these games are worth playing, but their approaches to design are completely opposed to one another - Pathfinder: Kingmaker is about as complex as it could be, sometimes to a fault, and Wasteland 3 is about as approachable as it could be.
I’m done with RPGs in this blog. No, really, I am. Let’s get back to shooters
Black Mesa & Prodeus
There are two games that define first person shooters. Doom, for the “classic shooter” experience of running around a mazelike level at breakneck speeds, blasting tons of simple but effective enemies and finding secrets, switches, and keys to unlock more of the level; and Half-Life, for the “modern shooter” experience that slows the action down in favor of a more realistic, more narrative driven experience.
Black Mesa is the modern-day fan-remake of the original Half-Life and it’s real good. I’m not entirely sure if I want to declare Black Mesa better than the original Half-Life, but it’s up there. If it has any flaw, it’s that some of its puzzles could have been chopped out. This goes doubly-so for the Xen area of the game, which they somehow screwed up again. There’s an hour, maybe an hour and a half of great content in Xen and a whole lot of simple, boring puzzles that just make it take far too long. I also think the soldiers could use some difficulty tuning - they are extremely accurate and very quick to notice you, meaning you spend a lot of time popping out of cover and trying to deal with these soldiers from a good distance or with indirect attacks (e.g. splash damage from grenades). This isn’t an impossible game, but it’s certainly not an easy one. Do yourself a favor and turn on the auto-run option.
Prodeus is more Doom than Doom 2016. All right, look, I love Doom 2016 as much as the next guy, and that game definitely falls in the “classic shooter” genre, but it feels like its own thing. That’s great, I’m glad they didn’t just make 1993 Doom again, but if they had made Prodeus I think I’d be just as happy. Prodeus is in Early Access, sure, but holy hell does it deliver a fantastic first two hours. It’s very much original Doom, but with a modern graphics engine. It reminds me of those remakes of E1M1 done in Unreal Engine or whatever, the ones that look kind of amazing but never come out to a full remake because they’re just happy they got E1M1 working correctly. Levels here are massive without ever feeling overwhelming, they’re loaded with creativity and fun, and the guns look and feel so good. The game’s 3D models are all actually sprites - they have taken 3D models and turned them into sprites, much like Mortal Kombat and 90’s Blizzard games did, and it looks amazing. Amid Evil did the same thing and, as you may have already read, I also thought that game looked amazing.
As an aside, can we just never call these “boomer shooters” ever again? “Classic shooters” is a much better term. Boomers, if we’ll recall our history correctly, were the ones condemning Doom and other M rated games as the end of life as we know it.
Satisfactory and Factorio
OK. The final games on this list. I promise I’m done after this. Also I do understand the irony of complaining about level design overstaying its welcome and overwrought character dialog on a blog post that is, according to Google Docs, twelve pages long at this point, but bear with me for a short while.
Factorio is incredible. Satisfactory is also incredible. You should play both. I know, I know, some people look at this and go “nope, not for me”. And that’s fine, everyone has to make their own judgment call, but both of these games do such an exceptional job of starting you off so small and then slowly ramping up the complexity until suddenly you realize you’ve got a base that takes you a full minute to walk across and you’re only a portion of the way through the tech tree. That’s when you realize that you need to start figuring out how to optimize. That’s when you realize it’s 5AM on a worknight and you really shouldn’t miss that meeting today.
Satisfactory is almost certainly the friendlier of the two. It’s gorgeous, for one - Factorio looks like an overly complex Eastern European game from the early 2000’s that nobody played, while Satisfactoy looks like it came out in 2020 (it’s actually still in Early Access until sometime in 2022). Satisfactory’s 3D nature also demanded a somewhat simpler game, made up for by the fact that you’ve got an entire third dimension and because you can just look at your factory from anywhere. Information is simplified and easier-to-consume and - perhaps most importantly - hostile mobs only bother you while exploring, they don’t come and try to destroy your base and they never get bigger and more powerful. Still, there’s nothing quite like inspecting your handiwork up close and personal, from first person, or climbing atop a tower to look out at the enormous expanse you have bent to your own will (or, rather, Ficsit’s will, as this game tries to do the whole “satire on the evils of unchecked corporations” thing, though it isn’t in-your-face about it). Along with the first person view comes several more movement upgrades and abilities - apart from sprinting, sliding, jumping, and sprint-slide-jumping, you can get better weapons and jetpacks and better medkits for all that exploring you’re going to need to do for the later tech trees.
Factorio is the more cerebral of the two. Sure, it doesn’t look like as much, but its systems are more complicated, its machines become more and more complex, and there’s a ticking clock element to everything as you need to make sure your defenses are up and working so that when the bugs attack - and they will, soon - you can defend yourself against them. It’s largely the same game - describing Satisfactory as “3D Factorio” is amazingly accurate - but these changes in perspective, complexity, and stress from an ever-present threat make it a more challenging experience. Is it more rewarding, or a better game? I don’t know, frankly. I know that it’s just as addictive and fires off all the same pleasure centers of my brain, and I know that I highly recommend it to anyone, even if you think you won’t like it.
...oh wait. There was one more thing.
...or just watch Brad and Vinny play it, but I think you’re missing out if you just do that.
Also I appear to have broken a promise. Sorry, but I needed to mention this one last game.
This is the single most chill game I have ever played. I mean, sure, you can fall down a pit in a cave if you’re not careful, or you can go a little too far away from your oxygen supply, but both of those are easily avoided. In the meantime, you can play at any pace you desire, from the slow ambling of someone just now figuring out crafting games to the speedrunner-y type who is already going to another planet. Even if you’re not finding anything, just being here, in this game, is peaceful and relaxing and fun. Gameplay-wise, the only real complaint I have are the controls - you have to move, aim your camera, and do a bunch of mining, all separately, and I think it gets a little clunkier than it should sometimes.
One of the most interesting things about this game, besides how chill it all is, is the fact that everything in it is tactile. Except for the pause menu, every object in the game is a physical thing and not a number next to a label in a menu. This can help immensely with understanding exactly what you’re doing, even if functionally it’s precisely the same as moving something from the inventory menu to the smelter in Minecraft. This adherence to making everything tactile perhaps results in some additional clunkiness, but I don’t care. It all looks great and feels great and sounds great - there’s something about the sound of picking something up and slotting it into your backpack that’s really satisfying.
Much like Satisfactory and Factorio, I think the stuff they’re doing with the whole “survival crafting” genre here is super-interesting. It’s a genre that I became a lot more fond of than I thought I ever would this year. For most of the decade, Minecraft clones felt like they were devolving into Rust-like troll-a-thons, where you build a house and come back the next day to find it vandalized, with all your stuff gone and a nice little turd sitting in the floor in the middle of your dwelling. Subnautica, Astroneer, Satisfactory, and Factorio are all cut from a different cloth, sure, but they’re proof that there’s still a lot of great ideas to explore in this genre.
Anyway, that’s all folks! That’s a lot, I know. I really didn’t expect it to be this much. I expected to write something about Doom Eternal and how much I love Subnautica but, hey, it turns out I had a lot to say about a lot of things I played this year. On some level, I think all of these games are interesting and worth your consideration, even Amid Evil. I know it’s half a joke, but “it really is the best time to be playing video games.” There’s so much great stuff out there, with great ideas that are extremely well-executed, stuff that doesn’t feel like it’s trying to hoover all of your money at every available turn or be the only thing you ever play for the next six months. I didn’t even get to write about all of the other things I played, from Deep Rock Galactic and Vermintide 2 to Sunless Skies and Ori and the Will O The Wisps, but mostly because I just need to play more of those games before really delivering an opinion.
Here’s to a much better 2021! Y’all stay safe out there.